I recently read a thread of posts on the Internet in which Jazz teachers were talking about teaching “progressions across the floor”. Many teachers participated in the discussion as they all extolled the merits of structuring their classes in this way; insisting that teachers who did not subscribe to this method of training “were not good teachers”. As I read this thread I started reflecting on my training as a student and the changes that I have made in my opinions, in my dancing and in my teaching over the last decade.
I did the majority of my serious preprofessional training under the tutelage of very few teachers. I studied ballet primarily with Madame Gabriella Darvash and Jazz with Luigi. Of course I took classes with other teachers, but for the most part, they were responsible for my training. These teachers were hugely famous and important in New York (and around the world) at that time. I had limitless respect for them and I deeply and truly believed that what they taught was RIGHT. They were famous. They were respected. Their students were some of the most brilliant dancers ever to step onto a stage. Their way HAD TO BE the RIGHT way. I continued training under these teachers for my entire career; but for numerous reasons I retired from performing relatively young and I left the dance world completely. Nine years later I resumed taking classes and found that the big studios like Steps on Broadway and Broadway Dance Center had undergone a significant change: When I was a student, Madame Darvash taught 4 to 5 classes a day, every day. Luigi (or an assistant teaching his technique) taught 6 classes a day. This kind of scheduling no longer existed. Teachers were teaching pretty much once a day… And many weren’t teaching every day. So in order to cobble together a schedule of classes that fit into my life, I was going to have to take classes with various teachers. And this change opened my eyes in a way that I would never have expected.
As it turns out, what Madame Darvash taught and what Luigi taught was drastically different than what many other teachers were teaching. But I KNEW that I had been taught by the BEST. So I went into these new classes with these new teachers and stubbornly worked the way I had been trained. I also started teaching and I parroted to my students exactly what I had been taught by my two mentors.
Well I was clearly no longer going to have any kind of serious performing career, but some of these new teachers took and interest in me anyway and started correcting me. I realized that if I was going to be in their classroom, if I was going to take their classes I should work in a way that was consistent with their teaching. I also became friends with some of these teachers and had some truly remarkable discussions and exchanges of ideas. And this is where my dance education really started to expand.
It seems that Madame Darvash’s ideas on placement and technique ran contrary to what many teachers were teaching. As I started to work with disciples of Maggie Black I realized that there was a completely different way to look at ballet placement and technique. Many of my readers might be shocked to hear that Madame Darvash taught that the hips should NOT be level during Passé. She also taught that “side means side” (even if you have to turn in a bit to get there). And her reasons for these sorts of ideas were definitely valid. But as I continued to study ballet technique and placement with various teachers such as David Howard, Fabrice Herrault, Lisa Lockwood and Elena Kunikova I started to realize that if I was going to be effective as a teacher I was going to have to open my eyes and my mind. What Madame Darvash taught worked. She trained very successful dancers. Her students were principal dancers in great companies. But now I have come to realize that her way is not the ONLY right way. And so I began looking at what many other “great” teachers were teaching. I took as many classes as I could. I watched the results that they got. I felt how their teachings worked on my body. I discovered what worked for me and what didn’t. And as I continued to teach I felt a change take place in MY classroom. I started formulating MY approach to ballet technique class. I started to command the classroom in a way that I never had before; and in response, I could feel a change come over my students as well.
Keeping our minds open to new and different ideas is the key to our growth as educators. It took me many years to realize this; but once I did, it paved the way for the next exciting chapter in my career. And isn’t this what we all want: to keep growing as artists and as teachers? If our classrooms are going to be vibrant, exciting, innovative places to cultivate artists we must be open to new and varied approaches and never reject new or different philosophies out of hand. We never can tell what we might learn.
With respect to the thread on teaching progressions across the floor: Luigi pretty much invented the concept of the Jazz Class. His was the first codified training method for the teaching of Jazz. His students, Like Madame Darvash’s were unique, exquisite, exciting artists in major companies and Broadway musicals. He trained many STARS including Ben Vereen, Donna McKechnie, Alvin Ailey and Charlotte D’Amboise. And he never taught progressions across the floor. I studied with him for nearly 30 years and not once did we do progressions across the floor. His technique exercises (he never used the term “warm up”) were designed to teach TECHNIQUE not merely get the dancers warm. His combinations were choreographed to be both works of art as well as important training tools; making dancers who were both expressive artists and technical powerhouses. Do I think that progressions across the floor are valuable and important? Of course I do. But if we keep our minds and eyes open we can learn that there are many different ways to get a result.
I recently started taking ballet classes with Zvi Gotheiner. And once again I am examining yet another way to look at training dancers. I am not sure I agree with his approach. But I am learning something new. And perhaps his work will inform my teaching and perhaps it won’t. Just as the teachers who take my classes may bring my ideas into their classrooms. This is how our profession blossoms. My time in Mr. Gotheiner’s class is making me think, analyze, explore and examine new ideas. And what could be more thrilling?